SEVENTEEN days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. In my last post, I introduced you to a now long-forgotten work of fiction from the 1880s that invented much of what we think we “know” about the First Thanksgiving. In today’s post I begin a two-part review of arguably the most popular modern-day recreation of that event.
In what I can only attribute to God’s sense of humor, the month after IVP released my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, Rush Limbaugh came out with a book on the same topic. The book Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims follows a middle-school history teacher named Rush Revere who, with the aid of a time-traveling, talking horse named Liberty, goes back to visit the Pilgrims in 1621 and discovers that they all would have voted Republican and opposed Obamacare. The book was (and is) fabulously successful, and Limbaugh has followed it with three more that carry Rush and Liberty up through the War of 1812.
My fear is that some Christian readers will assume that the series offers a reliable window into the American past solely because they agree with the author’s political reading of the American present. If you happen to fall into that category, may I appeal to you to reconsider?
Historical evidence, for most of us, is sort of like the foundation of a house. I remember when my wife and I were ready to buy our first home. In the back of my mind, I knew that the structure needed to rest on a firm foundation, but I didn’t waste much time thinking about it. I was a lot more concerned about floor plans and color schemes and square footage, and I remember being irritated when someone suggested that I should look underneath our dream home before buying it. (“You want me to crawl where?”) I think we tend to shop for history in much the same way. If a particular history book reinforces convictions that we already hold, it rarely enters our mind to investigate the underlying evidence. No need to go down in the crawl space when the rest of the house is so appealing.
When it comes to the use of evidence, Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims is a train wreck. I don’t say this gleefully, or with a sneer of condescension. Indeed, I say this as a political conservative who shares the author’s appreciation for the wisdom of our founders. I just wish he hadn’t botched the job so badly. The book may be entertaining–it may even inspire some young readers to want to learn more about their national heritage–but it fundamentally misrepresents the “Brave Pilgrims” it purports to honor.
As Christian historian Beth Schweiger puts it so eloquently, “in history, the call to love one’s neighbor is extended to the dead.” The figures we study from the past were image bearers like us. They had their own way of looking at life–their own hopes, dreams, values, and aspirations–and when we ignore the complexity of their world to further neat-and-tidy answers in our own, we treat them as cardboard props rather than dealing with them seriously as human beings. Put simply, we are not loving them but using them. Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims does this in spades. I could offer numerous examples of what I have in mind, but for now I’ll just concentrate on one: Limbaugh’s characterization of the Pilgrim’s economic values.
First, some background. Four centuries ago, the proposal to relocate a hundred people across an ocean to an uncharted continent was almost recklessly audacious. It was also prohibitively expensive, and most of the Leiden Separatists who were committed to the venture were also as poor as church mice. To succeed, it was imperative that they find financial backers who would bankroll the undertaking, and the company of London merchants who agreed to do so were no philanthropists. They were hard-headed businessmen who drove a hard bargain. And so, in exchange for the considerable cost of transporting the Pilgrims to North America and supplying them until they could provide for themselves, the Pilgrims agreed to work for the London financiers for seven years. During that time, under the terms of their agreement, everything they produced and everything they constructed (even including the houses they slept in) would belong to the company, not to them individually. At the end of the seven years, any revenue that had been generated in excess of their debts was to be divided among the London investors and the Pilgrim settlers.
Next comes a crucial plot twist: According to governor William Bradford’s history Of Plymouth Plantation, in the spring of 1623 the surviving Pilgrim colonists began to debate among themselves whether there was anything they could do to improve the next year’s crop. The answer, after considerable debate, was to allocate to every household a small quantity of land (initially, one acre per person) to cultivate as their own during the coming season. Because the land varied considerably in quality, the plots were assigned by lot, with the understanding that there would be a drawing the next year and the next after that, etc., so that the land each family was assigned would change annually.
While under the old scheme individual workers had minimal incentive to put forth extra effort (since the fruit of that effort would be divided among all, including the slackers), the new plan, according to Bradford, “made all hands very industrious.” The only flaw was the decision to reallocate household plots annually, for this discouraged families from making long-term improvements to their assigned tracts. To rectify that, in the spring of 1624 the Pilgrims decided to make the allocations permanent. The success of the new plan, Bradford recalled, demonstrated “the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.”
This shift in economic organization looms large in how Limbaugh remembers the Pilgrims’ story, and he has been struck by it for at least two decades. I can say this with confidence because the talk show host also paid attention to the Pilgrims in his 1993 polemic See, I Told You So. In a chapter tellingly titled “Dead White Guys or What Your History Books Never Told You,” Limbaugh explained how “long before Karl Marx was even born” the Pilgrims had experimented with socialism and it hadn’t worked! “So what did Bradford’s community try next?” Limbaugh asks. “They unharnessed the power of good old free enterprise by invoking the undergirding capitalistic principle of private property.” And what was the result? “In no time the Pilgrims . . . had more food than they could eat themselves.” They began trading their surplus with the surrounding Indians, and “the profits allowed them to pay off their debts to the merchants in London.” In sum, the free market had triumphed.
See, I Told You So never refers to the first Thanksgiving, but twenty years later, in Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims, Limbaugh claimed that the Pilgrims’ celebration would never have occurred had they not abandoned their socialistic experiment. As a literary device, Limbaugh has Rush Revere and his talking horse, Liberty, time-travel repeatedly between the present and the winter of 1620-1621. (They are accompanied by two of Revere’s middle-school students–a trouble-making boy named Tommy and a Native American girl named Freedom.) In late December 1620, the time travelers pay a visit to the Pilgrims shortly after their arrival in New England and are surprised to learn that they plan on holding all property in common. “We are trying to create a fair and equal society,” William Bradford explains to them. “But is that freedom?” Rush Revere muses to himself.
They return three months later, in March 1621, and are discouraged to see that the settlement is not prospering. William Bradford is perplexed; he had thought that centralized economic controls “should guarantee our prosperity and success. . . . But recently I’m beginning to doubt whether everyone will work their hardest on something that is not their own.” At this point, young Tommy relates to Bradford how hard his mother works to win prizes at the county fair, prompting the Pilgrim governor to speculate whether giving each family their own plot of land might motivate the Pilgrims to work harder and be more creative. In an epiphany, Bradford realizes that “a little competition could be healthy!” “Brilliant!” Rush Revere responds. The rest, as they say, is history.
When the time travelers return that autumn—having received a personal invitation to the “First Annual Plimoth Plantation Harvest Festival”—everything is changed. “Everyone seems so joyous,” Rush Revere observes, “far different than a short while ago.” Governor Bradford explains that “we all have so much to be grateful for.” The turning point “came when every family was assigned its own plot of land to work.” Underscoring the point, the Pilgrims’ Native American friend, Squanto, explains, “William is a smart man. . . . He gave people their own land. He made people free.” Not only that, Bradford adds, but the profits they are now generating will “soon allow us to pay back the people that sponsored our voyage to America.” Yes, there was a great deal to be thankful for. But as Rush Revere notes as the time travelers are preparing to leave, “It was obvious that this first Thanksgiving wouldn’t be possible if William Bradford hadn’t boldly changed the way the Pilgrims worked and lived.”
The history lesson in Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims is clear: The Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the Lord’s granting of a bounteous harvest after a cruel and heart-wrenching winter. Instead, they celebrated because God had delivered them from the futility of socialism. As Limbaugh put it two decades ago, “Can you think of a more important lesson one could derive from the Pilgrim experience?”
There is just one problem: IT’S NOT TRUE. Oh, the Pilgrims undoubtedly moved toward the private ownership of property, but they did so in 1624, according to William Bradford, three crop years AFTER their autumn celebration in 1621. To make the movement toward private property the necessary precondition for the First Thanksgiving is, historically speaking, a real whopper. To use a pejorative label that the radio personality is fond of wielding, this is revisionist history with a vengeance!
But there is more amiss here than a chronological gaffe. When the Pilgrims did move toward the private ownership of property, the shift was not quite the unbridled endorsement of free market competition that Limbaugh would have us believe. Nearly two centuries ago, the brilliant conservative Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “a false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.” Limbaugh’s characterization of the Pilgrims’ economic shift is clear, precise . . . and false. The reality is complex.
On a visit to Plymouth at the very end of 1621, deacon Robert Cushman (a church official in the Leiden congregation) was invited to preach to the Pilgrims and chose for his text I Corinthians 10:24: “Let no man seek his own: but every man another’s wealth.” The decision to allow each household to work its own individual plot represented a movement away from this ideal–but only partially. Both Bradford and his assistant Edward Winslow described the shift not as a good thing, in and of itself, but as a concession to human weakness. It was an acknowledgment, in Winslow’s words, of “that self-love wherewith every man, in a measure more or less, loveth and preferreth his own good before his neighbor’s.” Because “all men have this corruption in them,” as Bradford put it, it was prudent to take this aspect of human nature into account.
This was still a century and a half, however, before Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations would celebrate the enlightened pursuit of self-interest as the surest way to promote the general welfare. In countless ways, the Pilgrims showed that they still belonged to an earlier age. In economics, as in all of life, they viewed liberty as the freedom to do unto others only as they would be done by. The golden rule meant that there were numerous instances in which producers must deny themselves rather than seek to maximize profit, and if they were unwilling to police their behavior voluntarily, the colony’s legislature was willing to coerce them.
Examples abound. The Laws of the Colony of New Plymouth reveal that producers were prohibited from selling to distant customers if doing so created a shortage among their neighbors. Under the laws of Plymouth, it was illegal to export finished lumber under any conditions, and farmers could only sell scarce foodstuffs (corn, peas, and beans) outside of the colony with the express permission of the colonial government. Similarly, one of the very first laws recorded in Plymouth’s records prohibited skilled craftsmen from working for “foreigners or strangers till such time as the necessity of the colony be served.”
Nor was it acceptable to gouge their neighbors by selling products or services for more than they were intrinsically worth. The colonial government passed laws regulating the price that millers charged, the fares ferrymen imposed, the wage rate of daily laborers, and the ever-important price of beer. Pilgrim Stephen Hopkins ran afoul of the latter, and was called before a grand jury for selling one-penny beer at twice the going rate. A few years later, a colonist named John Barnes was charged with buying grain at four shillings a bushel which he then sold at five, “without adventure or long forbearance.” He had not assumed a significant risk in the transaction, in other words, nor held the grain for a considerable period of time, and under the circumstances he had no right to a 25 percent profit, even if a buyer was willing to meet his price. In sum, there was nothing intrinsically moral about what the market would bear.
And what of Limbaugh’s claim that the Pilgrims’ shift toward free enterprise would enable them “soon” to repay the company that had sponsored them? This assertion, at least, is correct, if by “soon” Limbaugh meant twenty-eight years, which, according to William Bradford is how long it took the Pilgrims to erase their debts. In truth, the assertion is misleading in the extreme.
So where does this leave us? Before anyone concludes that I am a closet communist, I will say again that I am politically conservative. What is more, the fact that Limbaugh is badly in error about the Pilgrims does not, in itself, discredit his economic views. We don’t automatically have to follow the Pilgrims’ lead in this or any other area of life; God has granted them no authority over us. They didn’t celebrate Christmas, wear jewelry, or believe in church weddings, and I have no qualms whatsoever in choosing not to follow their example in such matters.
But I do feel compelled to call Limbaugh to account for such an egregious misrepresentation. As a historian, I think no good cause is ever served by distorting the past, whether intentionally or accidentally. And as a Christian historian, I am grieved that the Pilgrims’ timeless example of perseverance and heavenly hope amidst unspeakable hardship has been obscured, their faith in God overshadowed by their purported faith in the free market.